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FanSpeak: Thoughts on Helmet to Helmet Rule and Applications


I just got done reading this article by CougFan.com, outlining some thoughts by Barry Bolton on helmet-to-helmet contact and what needs to change about the rule. If you haven’t read it, I’ll encourage you to do that first because I am about to go off of that for my thoughts here. It’s a good article and well worth reading. While I agree with some of the things Barry has to say, I would like to try and clarify some things not understood by the common fan.

The personal foul rule for H-t-H contact is not confusing, nor is it unfair to defensive players. However it is improperly applied at times and we need to revise some things to make our game fair for all players involved. I’d like to deal with this in 2 parts to describe my in depth thoughts. First I’ll deal with what I agree with and second what I don’t agree with. Again, if you haven’t read the piece it’s beneficial to understanding what I’ll be talking about here.

Nov. 23, 2012; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars wide receiver Dominique Williams (80) is tackled by Washington Huskies safety Sean Parker (1) during the first half at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

1: The problem with the rule is that it’s impossible to apply at full speed in today’s game. Barry’s absolutely right when he says that it’s going to take the use of Instant Replay to determine whether or not some hits are legal. In either the NFL or NCAA game, it would be a good idea to treat these plays like scoring plays, quickly making sure that the call was correct before giving the go-ahead for the next play. Targeting is fairly easily detected in slow motion and can be quickly deciphered by the booth crew before moving on, generally not holding up the game. I also think it’s a very important deal that they leave non-flags alone during the game.

In the NFL, if there is a targeting incident that gets missed by an official during a game, the NFL comes back during the week and incites fines on a player. That’s great! In college, nothing happens and that’s wrong. Another thing Barry talked about that was absolutely correct was the application of a rule that suspends players in college for at least a quarter for these illegal plays. To be fairly applied, that decision also must come during the week though after the play is reviewed by the conference and NCAA. There’s no way that this can come in-game and even un-penalized plays that deal with high contact should be reviewed.

2: Now on to the parts that I don’t so much agree with. “Illegal contact” by a runner is totally impossible to apply. I get that a running back ducks his head and all that, but a personal foul for H-t-H contact will rarely, if ever, get called on a tackler or a runner that is on the ground with proper space and time to decide if he does or doesn’t want to avoid contact. A tackler will not get penalized for a high tackle on a runner, so a running back “targeting” a defender is just an impossible judgement and should be left alone.

There is no way you can take away a runners ability to run somebody over at the goalline because he might hit a guy who’s trying to come in with good leverage in the helmet, nor can you take away a defenders ability to hit a guy in that situation to keep him out of the endzone. You would change goalline play forever and basically take the Run-Game out of the football. It just doesn’t make sense to start throwing flags on all contact involving the helmet. I mean, isn’t that why there are helmets in the first place?!

The penalty itself was and still is supposed to be applied in situations where there is a “Defenseless” player involved, unless there is a specific incident where a player leaves his feet (launching) to create contact above the shoulders. Players as receivers and players as kick returners while looking up and/or jumping up into the air at full speed or in a stationary position are at the highest risk, so they are now protected as defenseless players, as they should be. Again, runners in progress are not defenseless, which is why the penalty should never be applied there.

Lastly, the rule dealing with “targeting” really needs to be clarified. Let’s face it, football is a hitters’ sport and you simply aren’t going to take concussions out of the game, you’re just not. Nor are you going to take injuries out of the game. I think the first and most important thing is to accept that this is not going to happen and that’s it’s ok. Players understand that injuries are part of the sport. We don’t have to like them or do anything less than we are to prevent them, but they are going to happen and just because they do doesn’t mean we have to penalize everything that could cause them.

But back to the clarification. If you’re trying to specifically stop H-t-H contact or contact above the shoulders (which I think the rule was originally intended to do), that needs to be centralized. The rule in its current state encourages officials to throw a flag on any “harder than normal” contact on players who are trying to catch a pass. There have been more and more “clean” hits lately that have been flagged because they were hard enough to hurt the receiver. Kam Chancellor on Vernon Davis this past week is a great example. If that’s going to be an automatic penalty, then that needs to be clarified as well so that the players can understand what will and won’t be allowed.

But that’s not the case here. To me, the spirit of the rule is to keep hitters from targeting the head in any fashion and that’s great for the game. But you have to let hits happen within the framework of the rules that these kids and/or men have been presented so that they can understand it and be judged correctly for their play, and that’s not always happening. No matter how vicious the hit, if it’s clean and gets flagged incorrectly, go to instant replay and reverse the call. This would have been the case in Seattle, and that’s the right thing to do. That’s football people.